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The Jeff Bezos Affair, or: How a Divorce Becomes a Conspiracy Theory

The National Enquirer coverage of the Amazon CEO has spawned many tawdry headlines—and some Donald Trump–related speculation

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Last week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie Bezos, announced their separation on Twitter. The split was surprising. There’d never been a whiff of discord in the 25-year partnership; the last time MacKenzie made headlines, it was for writing a negative review of a book about Amazon in 2013. The decision to issue a public statement at all seemed out of character—a very open splintering of a very guarded couple. But shortly after the announcement, the National Enquirer published an exclusive documenting Jeff Bezos’s romantic relationship with former television anchor Lauren Sanchez, who is married to prominent Hollywood agent Patrick Whitesell. In the initial story and in follow-up reports, the Enquirer published text exchanges between Bezos and Sanchez that indicated the duo had cheated on their spouses. The one-two punch of the separation announcement and the revelations of an affair made the Bezos marriage an object of tawdry fascination. It also sparked a popular theory among a contingent of the conspiracy-minded, eager to read more into the mess. Did Trump do this?

Although the Bezos affair fits well within the National Enquirer’s historical coverage purview—exposing the personal lives of the rich and powerful—the tabloid’s motives for investigating have been regarded with suspicion by a variety of commentators, including Jake Tapper, Julia Ioffe, and Joe Scarborough, who have framed the investigation as the National Enquirer doing President Donald Trump’s bidding. “It’s hard to imagine [Bezos’s] position as a high-profile foil of President Trump’s didn’t factor into the Enquirer’s investment,” New York magazine’s Adam K. Raymond opined. The two powerful men have been at odds for years, and recently, Trump has accelerated his jabs at his wealthier rival, calling him “Jeff Bozo” on Twitter. Imagining Trump as the architect of Bezos’s shame reinforces Trump’s reputation for press-based treachery, as well as Bezos’s status in the popular imagination as a Trump opponent. This theory also exponentially raises the stakes of this news cycle. A billionaire’s infidelity is lightly lurid, but the president weaponizing the press against an enemy—now that’s a story.

The idea that the National Enquirer pursued Bezos to please Trump has basis in fact. David Pecker, the chief executive of the paper’s owner, American Media Inc., has admitted that his friendship with Trump guided the paper’s coverage during Trump’s presidential candidacy, which was obvious to anyone who picked up an Enquirer during the 2016 campaign; the paper regularly ran negative stories about Hillary Clinton and fawning stories about Trump. American Media Inc. has confirmed that it paid Karen McDougal $150,000 in hush money to keep her from recounting her affair with Trump before the 2016 election, and that Pecker told former Trump attorney Michael Cohen that he would help the Trump campaign bury other negative stories.

Under the current circumstances, however, it isn’t so likely that the National Enquirer pursued Bezos’s affair under orders from the president, or even with the primary aim of pleasing him. The reason we know about Pecker’s offer to kill negative stories about Trump is that he divulged this information as part of his cooperation with prosecutors in the Cohen case in exchange for immunity. The messy divorces and scandalous affairs of the ultrawealthy are, historically, media catnip. Imagine an alternate universe where Trump and his allies had no power and Peter Thiel had never litigated Gawker out of existence; Valleywag would have certainly pursued this story.

But why would the National Enquirer ever pass? The Bezos affair reportage is a return to form for the tabloid. Affair coverage had kept the Enquirer relevant for decades, at least since its publication of a suggestive photograph of presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1987. Exposés on the personal indiscretions of the rich and powerful are as much its slimy bread and butter as is celebrity cellulite; the first and only time it was considered for the Pulitzer Prize was for reporting on presidential candidate John Edwards’s extramarital affair in 2007. “Not since the paper exposed golfer Tiger Woods’s affair in 2009 has National Enquirer driven the news cycle as it did on the Bezos story,” an NBC report noted. Sex sells, and the National Enquirer has been desperate for a hit. The impulse to connect this Bezos news with the president is understandable; it turns something run-of-the-mill sleazy into a conspiracy, which is far more exciting. (Rumors of a presidential vendetta also justifies coverage of the Bezos affair by more staid publications.) But Bezos didn’t cause his own humiliation by making an enemy of Trump. He caused his own humiliation by sexting someone other than his wife.

Bezos is not an ordinary businessman. He is one of the most powerful people in America, capable of causing cities to offer massive amounts of taxpayer dollars to court him, as he demonstrated this year with his HQ2 stunt. It’s no leap for the tabloids to scour the barons of this new age of monopoly for scandal in the same way they’ve chased controversy in the lives of politicians and celebrities. After all, Bezos has far more political power than your average U.S. representative and the widespread name recognition that’d be the envy of many actors, musicians, and TV personalities. The National Enquirer’s exclusives are unsavory and unnecessarily detailed—I will always hold a grudge toward its reporters for lodging the phrase “alive girl” in my brain—but the tabloid’s criterion for publication doesn’t prioritize privacy; it prioritizes whether readers will be interested in something true about a public figure. Since Jeff Bezos now has to negotiate with divorce lawyers to keep his status as Amazon’s largest shareholder, this is a divorce with potential to reshape the most valuable public company in the world. There is already speculation about how the dissolution of this marriage will affect the stock market. It might hinge on intimate matters, but the Bezos divorce isn’t just a personal affair—it’s national affairs. This is what happens when so much power and wealth is so concentrated. Shaking bedroom walls can shake up Wall Street.

Ironically, this incident serves to underline the similarities between Bezos and Trump more than anything else. The enmity between the two works to Bezos’s advantage from a PR standpoint, positioning him as the good guy to Trump’s villain, the de facto person to root for against our very unpopular president. Although Bezos opposed Trump’s attempted refugee ban and has defended the role of the press, overall, he is not really Trump’s ideological enemy. The greatest gulf between Trump and Bezos is how much more money Bezos has than Trump. They have much in common: a shared ethos of maximal profit above all, a miserly approach to philanthropy, and now, extramarital affairs.

The predicament that Bezos is in is perhaps most neatly paralleled by an experience Trump had 29 years ago, during his 1990 divorce. During that time, Trump’s affair with Marla Maples and the disintegration of his marriage to Ivana Trump was front-page fodder for the New York Post, People, and the New York Daily News. Vanity Fair ran a feature investigation into the breakup of the Trump marriage. As with the Bezos divorce, there was intense speculation about how assets would be divided. It was rare then, as it is now, for an executive type to get the full tabloid treatment, but Trump and Bezos both accumulated wealth and expanded their businesses so flamboyantly that they became celebrities. The reporting on Bezos’s affair isn’t notable because it’s a sign of how much Trump hates Bezos. It’s a reminder that Bezos isn’t as different from Trump as his admirers would like to believe.